Meaning of "was to certain poor shepherds"

From the traditional Christmas carol “The First Noel”:

The first Noel, the angels did say
Was to certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay…

Is “certain” here a verb (to make them sure of God’s grace), or an adjective (referring to particular shepherds)?


I’m pretty sure it’s the adjectival sense. Merriam-Webster does not even list “certain” as having a verbal sense. Since “certain” as an adjective dates to the 13th century, while the carol evidently dates to the 18th, I doubt that it is an archaic usage.

From Merriam-Webster, the particular sense would be:

Yeah, I agree. But those Christmas carols can be confusing, syntactically and otherwise.

When I was a kid, I used to wonder what “Orient Are” was.

And why the beggar didn’t just help himself to all the food at the feast that “Good King Wenceslaus” was looking at.

That’s because there is no such thing as “Orient Are.”

The correct phrase was “Orien Tar.” I had that figured out by 1st grade.
Do I have to do all of the thinking around here???


“Noel,” in this particular song, refers to Christmas caroling or greetings, rather than the season itself. So it’s saying, the first song that the angels sang rejoicing at the birth of Jesus was sung to certain particular shepherds.

The comma really should be after “say;” with the comma after “noel,” it makes it sound like, “the angels said that the first noel was to certain poor shepherds.” That may be why it’s confusing.

The First Noel is perhaps three hundred years old:

Some of the phrasing is hard to understand because it uses older grammar that is now no longer used. Indeed, I suspect that some of the grammar was old-fashioned even when it was written. Some of it sounds like someone in 1800 trying to write like a person from 1650. Some of the phrasing is contorted just because it’s an attempt to fit words into a pre-existing melody. Let’s go through some of the song:

The first Noel the angels did say
Was to certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay;
In fields where they lay, keeping their sheep,
On a cold winter’s night that was so deep.

What this means is this:

The first Christmas carol is the one that angels sang to some poor shepherds in the fields where they slept, taking care of their sheep, on a winter’s night that was deep.

What I’m not sure of is what the phrase “night that was so deep” means. I think that I had the idea when I heard the song as a child was that it meant that the snow was deep that night. I don’t think it makes much sense for there to be deep snow in Israel. However, the songwriters might not have known this. The phrase may simply mean that it was in the middle of the night.

I’ve always taken that to mean that it was deep night, either deep in the night (middle of the night) or very dark.

I always thought it was deep cold. Does or did it get cold n Israel?

Next verse:

They looked up and saw a star,
Shining in the east, beyond them far.
And to the earth it gave great light,
And so it continued both day and night.

I presume that, this song never having been in copyright, it’s O.K. to print the whole song. This verse means:

They looked up and saw a star that shone in the east, far away from them. This star lit up the landscape, and it continued to do so for many days and nights.

Apparently not at Christmas time.

I’m going to disagree. I think it’s a verb. Luke 2 gives us:

This is the “first noel” that is referenced in the song. The first thing the angel says is “Do not be afraid.” They’re terrified. They’re uncertain. So the angel says something to certain them. Now I realize that’s not in the dictionary, but “…was to reassure scared, pitiful shepherds” makes more sense than saying “was to specific, impoverished shepherds”.
ETA: I think “deep night” means a dark night, to contrast with the star that comes in the next verse.

A ‘Noel’ (‘Nowell’ in some older versions) in this case is a sung announcement of Jesus’s birth. The first one of these was to one particular group of poor shepherds lying in fields outside Bethlehem. (Compare lawyerese: “Certain persons are excluded from this offer, including employees and officers of manufacturer, employees of the advertising agent and their immediate families, and those living outside the 48 contiguous states…”

The news didn’t go to shepherds generally, but to one particular group of them, those tending their flocks outside Bethlehem on the night of Jesus’s birth – certain shepherds, not all of them.

Can you find even one other example of the word being used in this way?

IMO, the fact that “certain” is an adjective, with a completely appropriate meaning for the way it is used in the song, pretty much indicates that reading is the correct one.

Next verse:

And by the light of that same star,
Three Wise Men came from country far.
To seek for a King was their intent,
And to follow the star whersoever it went.

This means:

Following the light of this star, the Three Wise Men came from a faraway country. They wanted to look for a king and to follow the star wherever it went.

The OED has an entry for “certain” used as a verb, but it doesn’t really mean “reassure”. Here’s the whole entry.

“Certain” is definitely an adjective in the carol.

Next verse:

This star drew nigh to the north-west;
O’er Bethlehem it took its rest.
And there it did both stop and stay
Right over the place where Jesus lay.

This star moved towards the northwest and stopped at Bethlehem. It stayed right over where Jesus lay.

Does anything in the story of Jesus’ birth indicate he was even born during the winter?

We Three Kings of Orien Tar
One in a taxi, one in a car
One on a scooter, beeping his hooter
Following Ringo Starr

Ohhhhh ohhhh
Star of wonder
Star of light
Charlie set his pants alight
Still proceeding
Through the ceiling
Guide us to that perfect light.